Positive Signs for Sorghum

December 12, 2008 06:00 PM
Tantalizing possibilities on the horizon are creating a buzz in the sorghum industry these days, says Tim Lust, CEO of National Sorghum Producers in Lubbock, Texas.

A new checkoff starting in mid-2009 will funnel much-needed funding to research, he says. Ethanol plants are providing new market opportunities, and cellulosic biofuels may one day give sorghum a big boost. In addition, herbicide-tolerant varieties will soon help growers control weeds and grasses.

"We have some unique opportunities ahead of us,” Lust says. "Sorghum is a water-sipping crop that will work in tough areas. One encouraging thing we're seeing is that sorghum is coming back on some of the better acres, too. People are amazed at the yield increases they're seeing when they get sorghum back on their better fields.”

Acreage count. This follows a steep acreage decline in the past three decades. Lust thinks the drop has bottomed out between 7 million and 8 million acres nationally, and sorghum should hold its own for the next few years.

"We lost a lot of acres in the northern end of the sorghum belt. Now we're seeing growth in the Southeast and in Texas. We've seen a little over a million-acre increase in Texas in the past couple of years,” Lust says.

"Sorghum uses one-third less water than corn. We're not growing it on the acres we did, but in terms of net dollars we're very competitive,” he adds. USDA approved the sorghum checkoff program in May 2008 and collections began this year. The grower referendum will be held next July, allowing USDA time to build a national list of sorghum producers.

"We need this program because we're behind from a research and technology standpoint. To remain competitive, we have to invest in our crop. Our seed companies are also the companies with corn, soybean and cotton technology, and their return on investment is more in those crops. If sorghum is important to the business of farmers, they have to make an investment in it,” Lust says.
Shifting grain sorghum acreage to areas such as Mississippi, where this field is located, has kept national totals relatively constant in recent years. But sorghum needs to catch up with other crops in research and technology.

The first technological breakthrough did not depend on checkoff dollars, however. Kansas State University researchers led by Kassim Al-Khatib, a weed physiologist, are developing a herbicide-tolerant sorghum line that could be sold by 2012. Two postemergence herbicide-tolerant traits, in fact, will be marketed by DuPont, giving growers new options for grass and broadleaf weed control.

Another potential breakthrough is the use of sweet sorghum in cellulosic ethanol production, Lust says, where it competes favorably with other feedstocks such as switchgrass.
All this sounds intriguing, but whether sorghum entices acres away from corn and soybeans remains to be seen.

Kraig Roozeboom, Kansas State University Extension cropping systems specialist, says he expects sorghum acreage in his state to remain flat for the foreseeable future. Many farmers opted for shorter-season corn varieties, rather than sorghum, on dryland fields, he says. No-till makes corn more feasible in western Kansas, and Roundup Ready herbicide technology encourages farmers to plant corn, as well.

"Grain sorghum's variability in yield is a lot more stable from year to year than corn, though. Corn hits higher highs and lower lows. Also, input costs have some growers going with grain sorghum because it's cheaper to grow than corn,” Roozeboom says.

Across the border. Last year's booming European market for U.S. grain sorghum evaporated thanks to adequate supplies of Eastern European feed wheat this year, says Allen Baker, USDA Economic Research Service economist. Mexico will likely regain its place as the top importer of U.S. grain sorghum. Implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, however, with no restrictions on U.S. corn exports to Mexico, might cut into sorghum markets there. Lust points to Spain as a promising new market for U.S. grain sorghum, based on a recent successful trade mission.

While new developments—a checkoff, herbicide-tolerant varieties and new markets—are months or years away, they are positive signs for sorghum.

You can e-mail Charles Johnson at

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